Growing up in Colombia, Lento largely ignored the sounds of his homeland’s traditional music in favor of heavier imports, like Metallica, Sepultura, Pantera, and Suicidal Tendencies. Photo by Stephanie Orentas
The opening of Combo Chimbita’s Ahomale sets a mystical tone. You can easily imagine a stage filled with fog as vocalist Carolina Oliveros belts out the reverb-soaked rubato melody of “Sola,” accompanied by a lone synthesizer. The mood changes as guitarist Niño Lento takes over the melody and, joined by the rhythm section, kicks into the groove of the title track. As the band hits the chorus, they rock out and Oliveros opens up, hitting long vibrato-laden notes with authority against Lento’s overdriven power chords.
In the first few minutes of Ahomale, the members of Combo Chimbita—four Colombian immigrants who met in a segment of the New York City music scene that encouraged sonic exploration—display the respect that they bring to the musical traditions they grew up around, but also show that they have their own ideas about how to create within that heritage. Self-described “tropical futurists,” they manage to use those traditions as a springboard for their forward-thinking exotic sound. Throughout Ahomale, they combine characteristics of South American and Caribbean music, such as Oliveros’ playing the palm-tree-trunk-derived guacharaca and Lento’s trance-inducing repetitive guitar ostinatos, with contemporary dance production and grooves, which are featured on “Brillo Más Que El Oro (La Bala Apuntándome),” and synth and distortion-heavy psychedelic rock, which is referenced in “Al Templo” and “Ahomale.”
Ahomale is the band’s second full-length release andwas helmed by rock producer Daniel Schlett (the War on Drugs, Modest Mouse). It follows a 2016 debut EP, El Corredor del Jaguar, and the album Abya Yala. While the group’s fusion of diverse musical approaches makes Ahomale a very atypical rock album, it is certainly an album that rocks. Combo Chimbita has shared stages with Parquet Courts, Buke & Gase, and Glass Animals, and finds a home among indie-rock audiences, who may be unfamiliar with the various musical dialects that the group assimilates, but are still able to identify with Combo Chimbita’s vibe and aesthetic.
The sinewy guitar lines that Lento spins on his Fender Jaguar lie at the center of Combo Chimbita’s sound. They also help his other band, the ultra-propulsive M.A.K.U. Soundsystem, percolate. Lento’s percussive riffing establishes the rhythmic backbone of the groove while weaving around the harmonic essentials of each song. Talking to Lento, it’s clear that his decisions about combining musical traditions are all intentional and well-informed. The guitarist has deep knowledge about Latin American and Caribbean music, and has undoubtedly spent a lot of time digging through record-store crates as part of his research.
His tone is reverent when discussing the role of the electric guitar in various traditions of Latin American music, from Colombian to Peruvian to Haitian, and he is humble about taking too much credit for his band’s influences. He makes sure to mention that many of his favorite musicians from older generations created their own sonic synthesis using keyboards and guitar effects to evoke their assimilation of psychedelia. And he’s just as knowledgeable when discussing the punk and metal inspirations of his youth.
We talked with Lento on the phone about Ahomale and to get an understanding of Combo Chimbita’s musical roots. That story intertwines with Lento’s tale of discovering the music that is important to him, and we ended up learning a thing or two about Latin American guitar traditions along the way.
When did you move to New York City?
When I was 16 or 17 years old, in the late ’90s.
What was your musical upbringing like in Colombia?
In Colombia, I was listening to a lot of metal, punk, and hip-hop. That’s what I was surrounded by—lots of local bands in the local hardcore punk scene. I was listening to Colombian music, cumbia and stuff like that, but I was not really into that music so much. When you are there, you are looking for the outside music.
Was it a lot of American bands?
Yeah. We were listening to Pantera, Sepultura—they’re from Brazil—Suicidal Tendencies, Metallica, stuff like that.
Your music has a lot of Colombian influences. What can you tell us about those?
When I moved to New York, I started looking for my own music. I was trying to find who I was, in New York City. I had friends from the Dominican Republic, and they had their own music. I had friends from Puerto Rico, from everywhere, and I’m from Colombia, so I thought, “Let’s listen to some stuff.” I started going deeper into Colombian music and I started listening to African music and the connections between Colombian and African music and the whole Caribbean and South America. Then I discovered the whole world.
The electric guitar in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa is really deep. We’re not exposed to that in America. I realized this and started buying records. So, I was discovering all of this music.
TIDBIT: Looking for an infusion of yet another outside influence, Combo Chimbita chose to work with rock producer Daniel Schlett for their new album.
I was exposed to this music through immigrants in New York. Like from Haiti, they have bands called jazz bands—they’re not what we call jazz—and compas [a style of Haitian dance music], things like that. They have crazy guitarists, crazy bands, crazy recordings. Chicha from Peru has amazing guitar players. Afrobeat, also. I was listening to all these things.
Are there specific guitar players in those styles that you were particularly listening to?
There’s a lot. Abelardo Carbon—he's from Colombia. He’s got a psychedelic, crazy sound. He has a very Colombian style, but he was also trying to imitate the African sound. He’s from a city called Barranquilla, where people were listening a lot to African music and the bands were trying to imitate the sounds they were hearing from Africa. People in Barranquilla know so much about African music.
Another is Julian Angulo. He had a band called Julian y Su Combo, which is crazy. Another guitar player is Che Benitez, who had a band called Peregoyo.
There are a lot of Haitian bands and musicians in New York City. The guitar player for Tabou Combo is Jean-Claude Jean, and there’s another band called DP Express from Haiti, and Les Difficiles de Pétion-Ville. The guitar player for that band is Robert Martino.
And some Peruvian bands: One is called Los Shapis and the guitarist is Jaime Moreira. And Los Wembler’s de Iquitos, and the guitar player is Elmer Alberto Sanchez.
It’s great to list all this music because there’s a part of the electric guitar history that has not been documented as disciplined and carefully as the American guitar music has been. Here, there’s a music industry, but there is also music that is not as strong in the music industry but is really, really deep.
When did you first start hearing this music? When you moved to New York City, or in Colombia?
This music was all popular music in Colombia. This is music I was hearing in the bar and at parties, but I was 15 or 16, and you don’t want to listen to your parents’ music or your grandparents’ music, so we were trying to listen to the cool things that were happening in the U.S. and that was how I got interested in the guitar. I wanted to play really loud and I wanted people to jump and do a mosh pit. So this music was there in Colombia, but I just didn’t care. After I moved to New York City, I joined a traditional music group and learned to play the drums, and that’s when I started listening to all these things.
When did you start playing guitar?
I started playing guitar when I was 14 years old. My friend and I would go to free music classes at the church. We learned three or four chords and started a punk band with just acoustic guitars and we started writing songs.